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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #61

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital


Sharpening Malaysian Competitiveness

Trajectory of Progress

Advancement or improvements in a society, like elsewhere, occurs along two patterns. One is the rare person or event that comes once in a while that will radically alter the way we look at things and solve problems. There is no way to predict or encourage this. Discoveries of the steam engines, and later the internal combustion engine, heralded the Industrial Revolution; the integrated circuit (IC) sparked the IT revolution. Similarly with rare individuals like Bill Gates or Ted Turner (the man who started the all-news network, CNN); you cannot train or nurture them. These are random and unpredictable occurrences.

The second equally important, though they may appear initially less spectacular, are the slow incremental improvements that others made on those seminal inventions or discoveries. Take the example of the IC. First somebody used it to come up with mainframe computers and later, personal computers. Then somebody thought of linking the computers together as the Intranet. Yet later still someone came up with the search engine software to sift these interconnected databases and lo and behold, the Internet was born. And suddenly the IT revolution is upon us. It took all these incremental improvements and enhancements to extend and fully utilize the benefits of the original invention of the IC.

This is also the way a society progresses. Occasionally there would be a seminal event or person that would determine the fate of that society. Typically the nation could be conquered, liberated, or there could be an internal revolution. With Malaysia, the most recent seminal event was its independence from Britain. That put the nation on a different trajectory of development. Before, London determined Malaysia’s fate; today it charts its own course. Since that pivotal event, Malaysia has made many incremental improvements that in total made a much greater impact on the nation than the original declaration of independence.

Many countries failed to capitalize on their independence and squandered the opportunities afforded by it; they easily reverted to their backward status. Indeed many are worse off today than when they were colonized. Many citizens of Congo and Zimbabwe today feel they were definitely better off under colonial rule. Iranians today too look longingly to the “good old days” under the tyrannical Shah.

All too often in the search for the spectacular, we fail to appreciate the importance of these incremental improvements. In their totality, these little improvements and enhancements produce more impact than the original seminal event or discovery. Thus we must not belittle or ignore these tiny improvements. More importantly we must continue making them, and nurture these continuous changes. Unlike the random spectacular events, these incremental changes can be encouraged and developed.

If I were to gather ten senior Malaysian civil servants and ask them what they are doing differently today in their present job that they were not doing five years ago, they probably could not answer me. They have been doing their job in the same manner as their predecessors, with no innovation or improvement. They are merely behaving as an autopilot, coasting as it were. Similarly if they were asked what they would expect to be doing differently five years hence if they were to keep the same job, they would again be nonplussed.

In my current surgical practice, nearly three quarters of the operations that I do now were not yet discovered or done when I was in training. Similarly, the surgical procedures that were common during my training days are now rarely performed. The diseases and the patients have not changed, but the way we managed them have, and for the better. Today surgeons rarely perform mutilating surgeries for breast cancer; surgeries now are less traumatic and disfiguring, yet give the same if not better results.

When I was in training, the average length of stay following gallbladder surgery was a week; today it is done as an outpatient, and using a totally different technique (laparoscopically). Similarly, the contents of my wife’s college lecture today bear little resemblance to what they were a mere five years ago. Today her students do most of their assignments on computers.

Yet in Malaysia they keep doing things the same way. The massive social engineering program, the New Vision Policy, is essentially a carryover of the original New Economic Policy promulgated by Tun Razak way back over 30 years ago. The assumptions and strategies have not changed.

Citizens must be encouraged to be innovative and not be afraid of change so as to enable them to become competitive. There are two ways to achieve this. One is to encourage and expose them to competition at the earliest stages, and two, to reward those who are competitive.

With the premise that we cannot predict who will be the winners, we must ensure that everyone be given the chance and opportunity to participate. Thus the young in rural and poor neighborhoods must be given equal if not better opportunities for education to compensate for their less-than-favorable circumstances. Their schools and teachers must be as good as those in urban areas. One of the cherished memories of my school days in rural Kuala Pilah in the 1950’s was when I was transferred to Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), a supposedly elite boarding school, I found that the laboratories and libraries at my old school were on par with MCKK. In fact the science facilities were better at my old school; it had started a pure science stream years ahead of MCKK. To top it, I count among my headmasters at Kuala Pilah, a London University PhD, an Oxford graduate, and one from Cambridge. With such leadership it was no surprise that my old school produced more than its share of the nation’s luminaries. Today it would be difficult to find any rural school in Malaysia with such a sterling staff and facility.

Entry into elite residential schools today is based on competition. That is commendable, but not enough. First, the definition of merit must be broadened and more inclusive, beyond examination results. I would in addition consider the students’ circumstances. Thus I would pick the son of a farmer over that of a doctor even if the former has a slightly lower score. My argument is this: given the superior surroundings of a boarding school, the farmer’s son should do better. The doctor’s son would do well regardless which school he would be attending; his well-educated parents would ensure that. Thus instead of depending only on the test scores, I would assess the whole child. Perhaps a student who has not done as well in the test but whose teachers’ recommendations are outstanding should also be considered. This of course makes the selection process much more complex than simply and mechanically looking at test scores. American universities base their admissions on the total evaluation of the candidate. As the brochure from Harvard indicates, a high score would not guarantee admission and neither would a low score an automatic disqualifier.

Second, the competition is presently restricted only to Bumiputras. I would broaden that to include all Malaysians. To cater to the political sensitivities, I would limit the number of non-Bumiputras.

Last, I would continue the competition even after the students are admitted. Thus students who do not measure up would be transferred back to the regular school. The expensive resources of the boarding schools should not be wasted on slackers. Doing this would serve as a sober reminder to those remaining to buckle up.

I would make these rules and criteria explicit and applicable to all. This is the only way to cut out influence peddling in the admission process.

Beyond the schools, I would also introduce similar rigorous competition for entry into universities and in the awarding of scholarships. The present policy of continuing the scholarships of students who fail to maintain satisfactory academic standing must be stopped. Those who do not make it must have their funding cut off.

Again with university admissions, I would broaden the definition of merit. Today public universities interpret merit narrowly; they do not factor in participation in extracurricular and other activities. This is misplaced. A generation hence we will have graduates who will be nothing but one-dimensional bookworms. There must be slots in the universities for those who have excelled in other spheres. Thus someone who has a less than sparkling academic record but who has successfully led his rugby team to the state championship surely has leadership qualities and deserving of a spot on campus. Similarly those who have extraordinary talent in the performing arts should also be given an opportunity.


Next: Competition in the Public service

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